“Are you hurt?”
Meg Burton-Smythe heard the question long before she spied the gentleman who asked it. She was half-sitting in the mud on the banks of the river beneath Sefton Bridge, the skirts of her sensible black wool riding habit hoisted above her knees as she examined her injured right ankle. At the sound of the stranger’s deep voice, she hastily tugged her skirts back down over her half boots in a fruitless attempt at modesty.
It was too late. The gentleman had already seen her.
He rode up on an enormous gray stallion, the late autumn sun at his back, its glimmering rays catching in the threads of his thick golden hair. He was a tall, athletic figure of a gentleman, with a devastatingly handsome face characterized by a strong chiseled jaw, lean cheeks, and firmly molded lips.
A knot formed in Meg’s stomach. She was reminded of the fairytales she’d enjoyed as a child. Stories she still read occasionally, about dashing princes on their white chargers, riding to the rescue of damsels in distress.
Given her present predicament, she’d have preferred to be rescued by one of the local farmers. Plain, ordinary, grandfatherly men who wouldn’t care how she looked or what an idiot she’d made of herself.
“I’ve fallen from m-my horse,” she said, rather unnecessarily.
Her stammer emerged just as it always did when she was anxious. She suppressed a grimace at the sound of it. What she would have given to sound calm and collected in this moment!
“I can see that.” The gentleman leapt from his own mount in one fluid motion. His finely-made leather top boots squelched in the mud as he strode, surefootedly, down the bank.
He was clad in tan Bedford cord breeches that hugged his long legs and a blue, broadcloth riding coat that accentuated the staggering breadth of his shoulders. When coupled with his honey-blond hair and beautifully sculpted features, he didn’t just look like Prince Charming, he could have been Prince Charming.
Meg’s mouth went dry. There was only one family in the county that boasted such golden splendor.
He must be a Beresford.
John Beresford, Earl of Allendale, and his wife, Margaret, owned Beasley Park, the estate that bordered Letchford Hall. Their eldest son, James, Viscount St. Clare was a cold, superior sort of gentleman with ice in his veins and their youngest son, Jack, was an unrepentant rogue with a devilish twinkle in his eyes. Meg knew them both by sight.
But Lord and Lady Allendale had another son. A middle son, Ivo Beresford, who had spent the last several years away from home, first at university and then abroad, enjoying a lengthy grand tour.
This was surely him, newly returned home to Somersetshire.
Meg privately cursed her terrible luck. It was bad enough that the gentleman coming to her aid should be gorgeous beyond imagination, but that he should be a member of a family as abhorrent to her own family as the Montagues ever were to the Capulets!
“What’s her name?” He squinted as he approached Meg’s mare. In his boyhood, Ivo Beresford had worn spectacles. He wasn’t wearing them now, but judging by the slightly unfocused look in his cool gray eyes, he still required them.
“Rowena,” she said.
“Easy, Rowena,” he murmured. “I’ll not hurt you.”
Rowena peered at him through her tangled forelock, glittering malice in her big brown eyes.
“She b-bites,” Meg warned.
Mr. Beresford caught Rowena’s reins. “She won’t bite me.” He held the mare’s bridle tight as he gave her a pat on the neck. “Will you, old girl?”
Rowena’s muzzle twitched. She plainly would have loved to sink her teeth into him.
It was Meg’s own fault. She’d handfed Rowena too much when she was a filly. Meg had hoped to form a bond with her—to make her a friend, a partner. Instead, all she’d done was encourage Rowena to nip people’s fingers.
Mr. Beresford lashed the mare’s reins to a nearby tree before coming to Meg’s aid. “Is it your ankle?”
Meg’s cheeks warmed, knowing that he’d seen her with her skirts raised. “M-my right one,” she said. “I c-can’t put any weight on it.”
He crouched down beside her on the bank, heedless of the mud. His hand touched the lacing of her brown leather riding boot. “May I?”
No longer warm, Meg’s cheeks were positively scalding. “If you m-must.”
He deftly unlaced her boot and slipped it from her foot. His strong fingers moved gently over her stocking-clad ankle and the curve of her instep.
She sucked in a sharp breath.
“Does that hurt?” he asked.
A pained breath trembled out of her as he manipulated her foot. “Yes.”
“It’s not broken,” he said. “Only sprained, I’d guess.”
“How c-can you t-tell?”
“If it was broken, you’d be screaming right now. But you’re not.” He smiled at her, revealing a glimpse of strong, white teeth. “You’re only blushing.”
Meg could have happily melted into the mud. She knew what she looked like when she blushed. Her entire face and throat turned scarlet. When coupled with her red hair and freckles, it gave her the appearance of a ripe tomato.
“I’ve n-never fallen from a horse before,” she said. “That’s why—”
“I don’t judge.” He slid her boot back on her foot, retying the laces in a neat bow. “I’ve been where you are countless times.”
She gave him an uncertain look.
“In the mud,” he explained. “On my backside.” He stood and offered her his hand. “There’s no indignity in it. So long as you get back up again.”
Meg hesitated for an instant before slipping her gloved hand into his and permitting him to help her to her feet. “Oh!” A jolt of pain shot through her ankle the moment she put her weight on her right foot.
“Here. Let me.” He slid his hand around her waist. His arm was as strong as a band of iron.
Meg flushed even hotter. At eighteen years of age, she’d only recently left the schoolroom. She wasn’t formally out yet. She’d never danced with a gentleman or felt his arm at her waist.
Her heart raced and her tongue tangled over itself. She didn’t know what to say, let alone where to look.
How disappointed Miss Adams would be in her! Meg’s beloved former governess had taught Meg all she knew of how to conduct herself in company. Meg was meant to be elegant, graceful, and articulate. The very opposite, in short, of how she appeared now.
Miss Adams had departed Letchford Hall in the spring. She was soon to be married in Bath. Meg was happy for her, though not so much for herself. In Miss Adams’s absence, Meg had no companion at the Hall to keep her company. No one to leaven the dull days as one drifted inexorably into the other.
The only bright spot had been her solitary rides on Rowena. Unburdened by her governess’s insistence that she have a groom accompanying her, Meg had traversed the countryside, galloping over the moors, jumping pasture gates, and exploring the hidden trails that wove along the river. Her daily outings were her sole taste of freedom. A seemingly harmless indulgence, which had now brought her to this.
“It will be less painful once you’re in the saddle,” Mr. Beresford said, bearing her weight.
Meg doubted it. She nevertheless allowed him to assist her back to her mare. Once there, he grasped her waist in his hands and effortlessly lifted her up into her sidesaddle. It happened so quickly, she had no opportunity to object to the familiarity. Not that she would have done. She’d never have been capable of mounting Rowena without his assistance.
She clumsily hooked her knee over the pommel. “Th-thank you,” she stuttered. “Mr.—”
“Ivo Beresford,” he said. “And I know who you are. You’re Miss Burton-Smythe.” He placed her left foot into her stirrup for her. “I’d recognize that red hair and those freckles anywhere.”
Meg’s already dwindling confidence withered still further.
So much for hoping she’d changed. That the intervening years had turned her from an awkward ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.
“You remember me,” she said flatly.
“Of course, I do.” Catching hold of his stallion, he vaulted easily back up into his saddle. “You and I are meant to be enemies.”
Meg ducked her head, avoiding his gaze as she slowly gathered her reins. She was uncertain how to respond.
He rode up alongside her. “How’s your ankle now?”
“Can you manage the ride home?”
“I believe so, thank you.”
Mr. Beresford didn’t appear convinced. “I’ll accompany you back just to be certain.”
Her eyes flew back to his. “Oh no, you m-mustn’t!” she cried before she could stop herself.
His brows lifted in amused surprise. “Mustn’t I?”
Embarrassed, Meg once again bent her head. “I mean… I c-can manage. You needn’t t-trouble yourself on m-my account.”
There was a long and rather agonizing moment of silence.
“It’s no trouble to me,” Mr. Beresford said at length. “But I see it would be to you.” He circled around her on his stallion, prompting Rowena to flatten her ears. “Very well, we shall part here.”
Relief coursed through Meg. She couldn’t imagine what her father would do if he spied her returning to Letchford Hall in company with a Beresford. The very thought of his reaction was too terrifying to contemplate.
“Shall I go first?” Mr. Beresford inquired. “I can gallop away in a trice, if you wish it.”
She chanced another look at him through her lashes. “Yes, please. That is…if you would, sir.”
Catching her shy glance, the same irrepressible smile pulled at his mouth. “Do you know what I think, Miss Burton-Smythe? I think we should be friends, you and I.”
She stared at him, rendered speechless by the scandalous suggestion.
His grin broadened. “Consider it,” he said. And then, kicking his stallion into motion, he cantered off over the rise.
Meg was left gaping after him, stunned.
Friends? How could a Burton-Smythe ever be friends with a Beresford? It was impossible. Unheard of. The two families hated each other and had done so since well before she was born.
But Mr. Beresford had been kind to her. More than kind. He’d been downright friendly.
And Meg was in desperate need of a friend.Return to Appointment in Bath